The drumbeat of opposition to school choice, relentless since President Donald Trump took office, hasn’t worn down Americans’ support for education alternatives.
According to the annual Education Next public opinion survey released Tuesday, a majority of respondents support the most controversial choice option: vouchers. Broadly speaking, school vouchers allow parents to use taxpayer funds to pay for private schools. Programs vary from state to state, but 54 percent of survey respondents said they supported “wider choice” in the form of vouchers. That’s a whopping 9 percentage point increase over last year. Outright opposition to vouchers fell from 37 percent last year to 31 percent this year.
Public school backers, especially teachers unions, vilified Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for her longtime support for both voucher programs and charter schools. They labeled her an extremist, but it turns out her views are pretty mainstream. Education policy analyst Rick Hess with the American Enterprise Institute calls that fact the survey’s “most noteworthy takeaway.”
“While the press has imbued the Obama administration’s educational record with a cool, righteous glamour, it turns out—on a range of hot-button issues—that the public is far closer to DeVos than to Team Obama,” Hess wrote Tuesday in Forbes, noting the public’s stance may matter “a great deal” in coming education policy debates.
Not only did survey respondents voice support for vouchers, but they also liked to make them available for all families in all circumstances. Only a few states have universal voucher programs. Most only offer vouchers to students from low-income families or those stuck in failing schools. Only 43 percent of survey respondents support income-based vouchers, the same level shown in last year’s survey.
Charter schools also fared well in the survey. After a drop in support last year, perhaps driven by the derision heaped on DeVos, support for charters rose 5 percentage points to 44 percent. Most of that increase came from Republicans. Democrats continue to frown on charters, although even former President Barack Obama came around to supporting them before he left office.
School choice advocates immediately began using the survey results as a rallying cry for policy changes. John Schilling, president of the American Federation for Children, said the survey highlighted a reality lawmakers can no longer ignore: “We urge policymakers at the state and federal levels to take note of this strong support and to take action to give all families the freedom to choose the best K-12 education for their children.”
Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said the survey results reinforce calls for parents to have more control over their students’ classroom experience: “Above all else, parents care that their child has access to an excellent school, and as education advocates it is our job to ensure that wish becomes a reality.”
The Education Next survey touched on several other topics that have spawned headlines during the last six months: teacher pay and school discipline. Support for teacher pay raises jumped this year after educators in several states walked off the job to demand higher paychecks. Not surprisingly, the level of support for raises wanes when people actually find out how much teachers in their state make. When asked generally if teachers deserved more money, 67 percent said yes. After getting the salary details, only 49 percent backed raises.
On school discipline, only 27 percent of respondents said they favored an Obama-era federal policy that aims to reduce racial disparities by preventing schools from expelling or suspending minority students at higher rates than their white classmates. About half of respondents, 49 percent, opposed the initiative. The Trump administration said it would consider rescinding the directive but hasn’t yet made the change.